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In open, free-flowing language, John Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" touches on themes the rest of his poems also cover, but in distinctive ways. Ashbery is interested, as always, in observing the act of writing, in thinking about language and its limits.

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The speaker describes the original Renaissance painting referred to in the title, as well as its various attributes: the physical details of the wood, the "density of the light," and the convex mirror which Parmigianino used to compose the self-portrait. The speaker juxtaposes such observations with lilting statements about the soul and what it is at its core, and he wonders aloud about our sense of reality and how our own perceptions shape it.

Launching from an extended description of the painting and its mode of composition, the speaker starts his own self-portrait with words functioning like brushstrokes. He describes the people in his life and the way they are painted onto him and the idea of his self. He sees humans as being constantly co-created by their environments. He wonders about the core—the portrait at the center of a carousel, nearing but missing a perfect rendering.

The speaker is interested in how we can relay experience, bringing up a meta-conversation: writing about the act of writing (and, by extension, any art act). In doing so, the speaker paints (with words) about painting, positing the care of the mirrored illustration in the painting and its effect on a viewer.

The speaker continues this parallel by discussing the history of the portrait and the history of this poem. He looks for commonalities but ultimately finds that the two are separate: the questions around the poem cannot be solved simply by the painting's realities.

Toward the end of the poem, the speaker continues to explore the differences between the ways various people build reality and perceive the world. He wonders about the interpretation of art and the role of the reader or viewer—particularly how they are different in relation to the work than they would be in the world. He has no set answers to these questions, but he looks at them with openness and ultimately concludes that there is no one simple and right way to look at art, or the soul, or the artist.

Summary

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“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is Ashbery’s most popular and most critically honored poem, and it brings together some of the best and some of the most annoying elements in his work. From its beginning, it requires some basic knowledge of a specific painting that Ashbery (a well-known art critic) admires. Italian painter Parmigianino (1503-1540), whose real name was Francesco Mazzola, was one of the foremost mannerist painters. He produced a self-portrait, and in order to impress his Roman patrons with his technical prowess, he painted the likeness as it would appear in a convex mirror.

The poem begins with a charming, succinct description of the painting, rich with critical perception and including excerpts from comments that had been made about the work at the time of its presentation in the early sixteenth century. It is essential to remember that it is not a realistic portrait of the painter, as it is deliberately distorted as it would be in a convex reflection. This eccentric, tricky idea is consistent with the stylistic experimentations of mannerist painters, who often chose to present subjects in graceful distortion rather than attempt to record life with absolute accuracy.

The speaker in the poem is impressed in particular with the representation of the eyes, which are usually considered in art to give entrance to the soul. The eyes in this picture do not fully satisfy the speaker, however deftly they are painted, and it is this sense of failure to capture the soul which precipitates the main subject of the poem: How can one know reality, how does one...

(The entire section contains 1233 words.)

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Themes